Titans' Kearse: great and still learning

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Jevon Kearse arrived for a recruiting visit at the University of Florida five years ago as a 6-foot-6, 230-pound free safety.

``I remember thinking that he wouldn't be a safety for too long,'' recalls Kevin Carter, then a Florida senior. ``He had arms like tree trunks. He was truly a specimen.''

These days, Kearse is known as ``The Freak,'' rather than ``The Specimen.''

But as Carter predicted, Kearse is no longer a safety. Nor is he a linebacker, the position he played in college. He is the left defensive end for the Tennessee Titans, holder of the rookie record for sacks with 14.5 -- two-and-a half fewer than Carter, the Rams' defensive left end who led the NFL this season.

Sacks are only one part of the Kearse story as he prepares to line up against Carter and St. Louis in Sunday's Super Bowl.

In one season, he has become one of those rare defensive players who can turn a game, as he did in Tennessee's first-round playoff victory over Buffalo. His sack for a safety led to nine points and the Titans ended up winning on one of the most improbable plays ever -- a kickoff return off a lateral with three seconds left.

Kearse's ability is obvious to almost everyone in football now, especially since he was a near-unanimous choice for defensive rookie of the year. The 15 teams that snubbed him in the draft are still trying to explain to their fans why they passed him on to the Titans, who picked 16th.

The main reason was that he was considered a ``tweener'' -- a little small for a defensive end, perhaps too big for a linebacker. He also had a relatively subpar season at Florida -- just 7.5 sacks and the distraction of fending off prospective agents.

Still, he was thought to be at least a top 10 pick, a dedicated hard worker who overcame a tragic background growing up in southwest Florida -- one of his brothers is in jail for murder and another was murdered.

Instead, Kearse turned into this season's Randy Moss.

There is some symmetry here.

The team Kearse would have fit best was Minnesota, which grabbed Moss with the 21st overall pick in 1998 and watched as he became the NFL's most feared young receiver. But the Vikings, who desperately needed -- and still do -- an impact defensive player, passed Kearse at 11th overall, instead taking quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who didn't take a snap in the regular season.

That's when the Titans, who wanted Kearse all along, started getting ready.

When the 14th pick slid by and Kearse hadn't been chosen, general manager Floyd Reese called Rich McKay of Tampa Bay, which picked 15th. Reese was prepared to offer McKay a seventh-round pick to move up one spot and get Kearse.

``I said to Rich, 'You want an offensive lineman, right?' '' Reese recalled Tuesday. ``He said, 'No, I want a defensive lineman,' and my heart fell. I asked him who he wanted and he said, 'Leon McFarland.' I said ,'Goodbye,' and hung up as quickly as I could.''

Thus did Kearse become a Titan and one of the reasons Tennessee followed up three 8-8 seasons with a 13-3 record.

``I never considered him a 'tweener,' '' Reese said. ``If you're 6-2, 230 pounds, you're 'a tweener. Not if you're 6-6 and 260.''

He's not the only one. ``Put a '56' on him and you're getting Lawrence Taylor,'' says Gil Brandt, the NFL's scouting coordinator.

The Taylor comparison is the one that's made often -- not since Taylor entered the NFL in 1981 has a defensive player so terrorized offenses. Even Rams coach Dick Vermeil, who says ``there's only one Lawrence Taylor,'' concedes that Kearse is special.

Vermeil should know.

His team's first loss this season was to the Titans, 24-21, a game in which right tackle Fred Miller, who lined up opposite Kearse, was called for six false starts and two holding penalties.

Miller doesn't blame the entire disaster on Kearse. He says crowd noise at Nashville's Adelphia Coliseum played a major role, but concedes that Kearse was a factor.

``It's very rare you see a guy his size who can move so fast,'' Miller said.

The scary thing is that Kearse hasn't even begun to learn what he can do.

Asked how fast he is, he says, with a twinkle in his eye, ``Fast enough.''

``Where the ball goes, I go,'' he adds.

This season, he's lined up at left end for about 80 percent of the defensive plays. In the last two playoff games, he was held down by two of the AFC's better right tackles -- Leon Searcy of Jacksonville and Adam Meadows of Indianapolis.

But while Kearse was keeping them busy, his teammates were putting pressure on Peyton Manning and Mark Brunell, major factors in the two victories that got the Titans here.

Next year will be different.

Kearse may line up at right end, left end or outside linebacker, although safety seems a little out of the question.

``We didn't want him to do that this year because we wanted him to learn one position,'' Fisher said. ``He's done that. Now he'll work in the offseason so he can become more productive.''

That's scary.

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